Last week, David Grossman won the Man Booker International Prize for his novel “A Horse Walks Into a Bar.” Published in Israel in 2014 and in translation this year, the novel primarily is the story of Dov Greenstein, who is standing on a stage in a basement dive bar in Netanya and delivering stand-up — if not precisely the comedy the audience was expecting, then at least self-disclosure peppered by jokes.
Dov’s father was a barber who was always running a side hustle: Darning stockings. Selling jeans with misplaced zippers. And gathering secondhand clothing and bedding for resale in whole or as parts. “He used to drive around Jerusalem’s neighborhoods on his Sachs moped buying rags, old clothes, shirts, pants,” Dov says. As he goes, his father shouts “the familiar ragman’s call: ‘Alte zachen!’”
Alte zachen. Old things. Old things with an implied hope for renewal. For a second life. As it happened, last week another novel by an Israeli won a literary award, and that novel also featured a rag dealer calling alte zachen on the streets of Jerusalem. That novel is “Central Station” by Lavie Tidhar. (We reviewed it in March.) It won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel — probably less for the 23rd-century alte zachen dealer than for Tidhar’s recycling and refurbishing of classic science fiction tropes.
This got us thinking about alte zachen, and the ways Jewish writing is like the rag trade. It’s not the shmattes themselves; it’s about the idea that nothing is ever discarded. The past can, and must be, repurposed. Whether it is a tattered bed sheet or an old Germanic language picked up in one corner of our dispersion, another customer, another generation, will find a use for the alte zachen.
It is the combination of the old and new that makes our Jewish stories compelling, that provide the facets that dazzle us from time to time. The past echoes in today, and today echoes in the past.
The power of Grossman’s and Tidhar’s stories lie in their authors’ grasp of William Faulkner’s truism that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Grossman’s comedian never can escape the shadow the Holocaust cast on his mother, even as he yearns to make his audience laugh. Tidhar’s characters live in the shadow of a Tel Aviv spaceport, but they never can escape their own private and family histories.
And in our community, the stories that compel and delight us most share that characteristic. We’re pleased that our colleague Joanne Palmer also won two awards last week — the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism of the American Jewish Press Association. The two stories reflected the different ways alte zachen manifest in our 21st century America. One told the tale of the Maxwell House Haggadah — an ancient ritual remade again and again for the needs of modern Jews and the advertising agency that markets to them. The other told about Orthodox parents of gay kids, and how they gathered to figure out how to love their children while not cutting themselves off from the old traditions.
This week, our paper again has many tales of alte zachen. On the cover, Jewish artists repurpose old themes as new Jewish art. The Teaneck Jewish Center, one of our community’s oldest congregations, seeks to rebuild. And Miryam Wahrman writes of medicine as a mitzvah as a congregation seeks to find a slightly used kidney. Not quite a modern-day ragman shouting alten nirren, old kidneys, as he rides through the streets on his moped, but close.